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10 Questions for Cynthia White

As a girl I pictured death the way
I pictured sex, transporting and light

on details. Except he should be
mounted. Mustachioed and dashing.

Now, I hear about a woman—
an acquaintance, my age—

on a shaded path I also walk, whose heart
quit just before the lime-kiln turnoff,
—from “Footpad,” Volume 61, Issue 1 (Spring 2020)

Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
I was in the fifth grade when I wrote a description of a gathering snowstorm. I don't know if it was any good, though I enjoyed writing it. My teacher made me read it out loud to our class, usually a mortifying experience, but somehow I found myself paying attention to the sound of the words, how they fit together, whether they were what I wanted to say.

What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
I read pretty eclectically; Sharon Olds, Phillip Levine, Ada Limon, Carl Phillips, Maggie Smith, Jericho Brown to name a fraction of what’s on my shelves. I think you learn a little bit from everyone you read. Bestiary by Donika Kelly has been a recent obsession. Her poems are fierce and courageous, yet formal. If only a drop of her prowess rubbed off on me, I’d consider myself blessed.

What other professions have you worked in?
I’ve worked in retail—art galleries mostly. In college I was a motel maid and very briefly did factory work. Because my focus was writing, I was never very fussy about what jobs I did.

What did you want to be when you were young?
A writer! Literature was highly valued in my family. My father used to recite Shakespearean soliloquies at the dinner table. Both he and my mother knew Shelly and Coleridge poems by heart.

What inspired you to write this piece?
Like most of my poems, it had multiple sources. I ran across the word “footpad” in a story. It’s an old Victorian term for a highwayman who robs on foot because he can’t afford a horse. Somehow I got to thinking about the depictions of death riding a horse, the Four Horsemen of The Apocalypse being the most famous example. So many cultures have these images; sometimes he rides a cow or a donkey. What if death was too poor to have any kind of mount? Why do we romanticize/elevate death? Also, it’s hard to resist linking Eros and Thanatos, the two great engines of poetry.

Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
I’m lucky to live in Santa Cruz on the California coast. I walk in the redwoods or by the ocean almost daily. Wool-gathering, especially in a beautiful place, is great for both revising and beginning something new.

Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
Coffee, more coffee and early morning hours.

If you could work in another art form what would it be?
I always wanted to sing. I can’t carry a tune to save my life. It seems so elemental and magical, just opening your mouth and having something wonderful emerge.

What are you working on currently?
Mostly individual poems, though I do have a manuscript that needs sprucing up.

What are you reading right now?
Besides Bestiary, Emma by Jane Austen, for about the tenth time, Waiting for the Light by Alicia Ostriker, If the House by Molly Spencer, Weather by Jenny Offill.


CYNTHIA WHITE's poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Narrative, Grist, ZYZZYVA, Poet Lore, and Catamaran among others. She was a finalist and semi-finalist for Nimrod's Pablo Neruda Prize and the winner of The Julia Darling Prize for Poetry from Kallisto Gaia Press. She lives in Santa Cruz, California.

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